“They’ve made the final decision. You’ve been chosen.”
“ . . . thank you, Commander.”
The thing about tragedies is that they never come one at a time. They come one after another, like hailstones, so quickly you don’t notice the damage until it’s done. And even when the storm is forecast, the intensity somehow always surprises you.
It started with a drought, which didn’t seem like a big problem at first. The world was rolling in prosperity—had been ever since the Resolution of Global Peace was signed after the fourth world war thirty years ago. We were invincible. A little dry weather couldn’t hurt us.
What we didn’t realize was that this was no ordinary drought. Our world was changing—the increased meteor storms, higher temperatures, and thinner atmosphere proved it. The scientists have studied it more closely than I have. All I know is that several major jet streams were altered, causing high pressure zones to stall across enormous portions of the sky. The land below was left panting for a single drop of rain.
While we waited for the rain to begin again, the earth contracted like a fist, squeezing every bit of moisture it could from the ground to feed the crops. But it was no use. Grass fires sprouted from nowhere, consuming the thirsty land with a fury unlike any I’d ever seen. For a while we fought back. But as rain continued to shun us, we realized water was too precious to spare. We fought fire with fire when we could and let the land burn when we couldn’t.
Agriculturists developed elaborate plans to use rivers and remaining groundwater to irrigate large portions of farmland. But then rivers began going dry. Eventually, even the least agriculturally-minded could see these plans were futile. The people who had sworn by their own lives to keep peace began to fight for land with pure water sources. What will you do? they asked authorities. Kill us? We’re going to die anyway.
But there were a few who still hoped, still dreamed. They dreamed of a land of peace, one untouched by drought or fire or famine. A new world. Literally.
Some rusty, old Latin scholar dubbed it Sperare—“to hope.” The images taken by the droid that discovered it made it look like a tiny, silvery blue coin hanging in the sky. Advanced tech scouting probes returned with news of habitable temperatures, plentiful water, and promising soil. Later reports claimed the test crops were thriving. That’s when the leaders of Operation New Life (their title, not mine) revealed their plan to send a shuttle with a small group of humans to Sperare.
The official story was that this group would be the first of many. Those higher up knew this was unlikely. Time was too short. The mission to Sperare was a desperate attempt at the one thing the people of Earth still hoped for—escape.
And, somehow, they chose me to lead them.
“Sir, the list of possible passengers is here.”
“Why are you bringing it to me?”
“The commanders are giving you the final decision, sir. They’ve selected twenty possible passengers. As captain of the space shuttle, they want you to select the final ten.”
I didn’t expect the list. I didn’t expect any of this really—neither the disasters, nor the position I’m in now. When I was growing up, I never wanted to be a leader. I liked facts, figures. They were precise, easily defined and easily understood. I suppose that’s why I took so quickly to flying, first planes and later spaceships. Machines I could understand. As long as I treated them right, they did exactly what I needed, when I needed it. People, though, people never did what I expected. That’s why I preferred to leave leading them to someone else.
My superiors weren’t inclined to listen to my wishes, though. Within six months of my entrance to the Space Academy, they promoted me to squad leader. When I tried to protest, my commander, Efram Alterman, pulled me aside.
Alterman was a grizzled bear of a man, a head taller than most and larger than life in the eyes of the students. I still remember the heaviness of his hand on my shoulder, as he turned me toward the railing of the balcony we stood on. Below was a group of jostling, joking students.
He asked me what I saw, and I replied, somewhat stupidly, “students.” He said he saw people who needed a leader. He told me he and the other commanders had chosen me because I had something other students didn’t: a heart. A leader needed both, he said—a mind and a heart. Then he said, They need you, Matthews.
They need you.
Those words, spoken in his growling, gravelly voice, pounded into me, even as he turned and left me alone. Left me thinking. Wondering.
Reading the list made me feel that way again, like if I made the wrong decision, I would regret it for the rest of my life. And then I reached the last name on the list—her name—and I felt like I had when Alterman looked me straight in the eye, as though I was being soundly scolded for missing something important.
“Commander Belinsky? May I speak with you?”
“Captain Matthews. Come in, come in. I am told you have received the list?”
“Yes, I have. That’s what I wanted to speak with you about.”
“There is a problem?”
“Not exactly. It’s just—how were these people chosen?”
“We used the usual process of elimination. Our system administrators assure me each of them has above average capabilities. Any of them would be a valuable addition to your team.”
“There was one, though . . . I wouldn’t have thought . . . .”
“Ah. You are wondering about the girl.”
“She was special. One of our largest donors insisted we put her on the list, or he wouldn’t give anything. Of course, we didn’t know about her pregnancy then, or we would not have agreed.”
“The donor, can you tell me who he is?”
“Yes, he is an older gentleman by the name of Engelmann. He is very wealthy, but his health is not good. That and his age kept us from considering him as a possible passenger. His son kept company with the young woman for a time, and tests have shown that her baby is Engelmann’s grandchild.”
“And the son?”
“He is dead. He was apparently quite fond of parties and offended the wrong people at one of them. It was a great tragedy for Mr. Engelmann.”
“You do realize you have complete control over the final list. The girl is listed only as a courtesy to Engelmann. You may choose whomever you feel will benefit the mission the most. I will handle any donor complaints.”
“I understand, sir. Thank you.”
I’d hoped talking to Belinsky would clarify things for me, but instead I felt more confused. Lost—much like I had during those first few months as squad leader.
Some under my command accepted my leadership, while others were determined to see my position revoked. Then, late one winter night, a training center caught on fire. The cause was never determined, though irresponsible student behavior was suspected. My squad was summoned to help.
When we arrived, the fire was raging like a wild animal freed after months of starved imprisonment. We fought fiercely, but soon, it was clear the fire would win, and we began to focus on protecting nearby buildings. As I moved between my squad and my superiors, a man rushed up to me, saying he could hear voices, that there were people still trapped inside.
I didn’t think in that moment. I just acted, shouting for blueprints of the burning building. My brain scanned them and registered a way in, and I ordered a small group of men to follow me. I remember the heat of the flames, the choking sensation from the smoke, the moment of panic when we found the blocked door, the stab of relief when we broke through, and finally the blessed coolness of the night air as we stumbled out, half carrying, half dragging the injured. I was bent in half, hands on knees, sucking in clean air, when I realized my squad was watching me, waiting.
I straightened slowly. My voice was hoarse from the smoke as I directed several of them to take the injured to the infirmary. They obeyed instantly. A feeling I couldn’t quite name filled me, and I took a deep breath.
I didn’t question my promotions after that.
“Hey, Cap’n, what’s—whoa, you look like someone crashed your favorite spaceship. Heard you were talking with Belinsky earlier. What happened, did he chew you out for not logging your last hours?”
“No. No, it’s just—well, here take a look. They gave me the list of our potential passengers.”
“Hey, I’m co-captain. Why didn’t I get this?”
“You may be co-captain, Jack, but I’m still your superior.”
“That you are. Say, we only have room for ten. Why are there twenty on here?”
“They’ve asked me choose our final passengers.”
“No . . . you’re serious? That’s pretty intense. Are you okay with that?”
“I have to be, don’t I?”
“So, the doctor, the engineer, the agriculturist, they’re all gos?”
“We’ll need them, won’t we?”
“Definitely. What’s this mark beside this girl? Breeanna MacAuley? Wait, does this say she’s pregnant?”
“Come on, Cap’n. You can’t seriously be considering bringing her along. It’ll be hard enough for anyone in normal health, let alone someone in her state.”
“No. I know. I’m not, not really. It’s just—I know her.”
“You—what? How’s that possible? Who is she?”
“I—she . . . she was my daughter’s best friend. She’s the reason Elli died.”
The experts put the Sperare mission’s chances of survival at 40%, which means there’s a 60% chance working against us. Not the odds I would choose. But still, it’s a chance. For those who believe in that sort of thing, it’s hope.
I don’t know if I believe or not. Once, I did. But losing Elli made everything go sort of . . . gray. I didn’t care as much. I suppose that’s why I lost track of Breeanna so easily.
Breeanna MacAuley. That was a name I hadn’t heard in a long time. We used to call her Bree. To Elli, she was a best friend. To my wife and me, she was a second daughter.
Elli had a talent for finding lost things and dragging them home. A mud-crusted locket with a broken clasp; a naked, one-eyed doll; a half-starved, three-legged dog. And then . . . Bree. A skinny, fierce-eyed girl who was part child, part woman, part wild, untamed foal. No parents or home to speak of—at least none worth speaking of. Soon, Bree spent more time at our house than not.
And for a while, that was good. Her spirited nature drew Elli from her dreamy shell, and Elli’s warm sweetness soothed Bree’s fiery temper. Then the girls turned sixteen, and Bree’s wildness became something else. Some insane, unreasoning, wind-whipped cyclone of fury at life. We tried to help. We tried everything we could think of. Finally, we just gave her space.
Then she took Elli.
“Hello, sir. Can I help you?”
“Dr. Thomas? I’m Captain Matthews.”
“Oh, yes, we’ve been expecting you, Captain. You’ve come to examine your future passengers, is that correct?”
“That’s right. But—I’d prefer they not see me yet. Is that possible?”
“Of course. Come right this way.”
She didn’t really kill Elli. This long after it, I can see that. For some reason, Elli chose to get in that vehicle with her. Knowing my daughter, she probably hoped to talk Breeanna out of whatever the most recent foolish scheme was that she had come up with.
You would think after all this time, we could prevent things like this from happening. To some extent we can: the girls’ vehicle had an auto control function that would have taken them safely to their destination. But instead of using it, Breeanna took control. And so, despite our advancements, these facts remain.
Breeanna was driving.
She was going double the rate the auto control would have taken them.
The vehicle spun out of control on a sharp curve and slid over the edge of a steep drop.
Elli died on impact.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve tried to see the facts in a different light. Tried to understand what Breeanna was going through. Tried to see how much losing Elli hurt her too. But this fact stays the same.
My daughter is dead.
“Each of your potential passengers is being kept in a very controlled environment right now, just as you and Jack Anderson are. We don’t want any of you picking up any unforeseen viruses this close to departure.”
“Now, just beyond this window is the living area where several of them gather about this time of afternoon. The glass is tinted. You may observe them freely, but they will not know you are here. Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Wait—before you go. The young woman there, with the dark hair. What can you tell me about her?”
“Oh, that’s Breeanna. You have her file, of course. I can tell you very little beyond what is written there. She’s polite, answers every question we ask her. A bit on the quiet side.”
“She looks pale. Is she well?”
“Her pregnancy is proceeding normally, if that’s what you mean. I expect she’s lonely. She doesn’t seem to have quite—well, ‘connected’ with any of the other passengers yet.”
“I see. Thank you.”
It was strange seeing Breeanna and the others like that. Especially Breeanna. She seemed withdrawn, subdued. And like the doctor said, lonely. She talked briefly to a few of the others, but the expression in her eyes never changed. It was fragile, vulnerable. Nothing like the brash Bree I knew.
Tomorrow, they’re expecting me to announce the names of the people I’ve chosen to accompany me. To tell them who will go and who will stay. To decide who will live and who will die.
And I have no idea what I’ll say.
My brain knows what I should say. I’ve looked at the facts and figures, and I know the correct answer. Logically, there are ten people on the list who, based on their qualifications, capabilities, and personalities, I should choose to go. Logically, these people give us the best chance of surviving on whatever new world we’re going to.
But part of me, my heart maybe, wonders, Can you really condemn the artist to death simply because the handyman will be more necessary? Or what about the brilliant strategist who struggles with depression? You might need him.
And Breeanna. Both she and her child are complications I never expected.
I want to take more, to take everyone. But the shuttle will hold only a few, and we don’t have time to build anything bigger.
Ten people. Plus Jack. Plus me.
The “lucky” ones.
I wonder. Yes, we might live. But living on, when everyone else is gone . . . well, I know from experience that living in loss can hurt worse than death ever could.
“So, Cap’n, are you ready?”
“Yes, Jack. I think I am.”
“Tell me who you picked?”
“You’ll find out when everyone else does.”
“Ah, come on, Cap’n. Not even a hint?”
“You know, Jack, despite your jokes, you’re one of the most capable men I know. I need you to promise me something. No matter what I say once I get up on that stage, I need you to promise me to fulfill this mission to the best of your capability. Will you do that?”
“Well . . . sure, Cap’n. But what—”
“It’s time for me to go. Wish me luck.”
As I sat thinking last night, trying to decide what to do, a memory came to me. It wasn’t much—just a tiny snippet, faded like a half-forgotten dream.
Elli and Bree were girls, only nine or ten years old. It was raining that day and raining hard. Dressed in shorts and old T-shirts, they danced around in a mud puddle, soaked to the skin but laughing uncontrollably. Then, right above them, a small break opened in the clouds and sunlight burst through. Golden-haired Elli lifted her face and threw her arms wide to embrace the light. Dark little Bree stood still, then closed her eyes and smiled, a real, warm smile unlike any I’d seen her wear before or since.
That was it. Two little girls, surrounded by darkness but drinking in the sun.
“Kamau Gatura.” The doctor. One.
“Kioshi Masaaki.” The engineer. Two.
“Nailah Kamas.” An educator. Three.
“Diedrich Eberhart.” The agriculturalist. Four.
“Duvsha Nahor, Adnan Houssam, Gianna Donatella, Katharina Gunnel, Manuel Gonzalez, and Tuwa Yamka.” Necessary, capable, all. Ten.
“ . . . and Breeanna MacAuley.”
“No, that’s not—”
“Captain, you must be mistaken—”
“There’s no mistake. You have no need for two captains on the shuttle. Jack Anderson will do the job quite well. I, John Matthews, hereby cede my spot on the shuttle.”
She comes to see me after. After I convince my superiors I am serious. After I talk Jack into doing the job. After I finish all the paperwork, signing my life away. After all that, Bree comes.
And she is Bree again. I can see it in her eyes. The thin empty shell of a woman has a spark in her eyes. The same spark she always had when laughing with Elli. The spark I saw that day in the rain.
“I don’t know what to say,” she says.
“I never was much for words. You know that.”
I nod. It’s enough. Elli’s still gone, but this . . . this is good. My brain and heart agree on that.
“But . . . why?”
I open my mouth, close it.
You needed me to, I could say. But I’m not sure she would understand that. Not yet.
So instead, I give her the simpler answer, the one my heart says.
“I couldn’t lose two daughters.”
Her eyes fill. She turns, as if to go, then pauses. “I was thinking,” she says. “I was thinking of calling her Elli. If it’s a girl.”
I smile. Elli would like that. When I see her again, I’ll tell her.
And I will see her again. I know that now—because somehow Hope came back just as my chance at Sperare left.